Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Yacoubian Building. Alaa Al Aswany

Aswany has woven for us a lush, rich tapestry of modern day Egyptians. Their struggles with religion, culture, sexuality and class explode into inevitable and sometimes surprising endings. This beautiful novel is both alluringly foreign and captivatingly familiar.

Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden

I'm only on page 25 but I'm hooked. Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down has brought us an over 600 page exploration of the Itanian hostage crisis. His 5 years of research is evident in his accessible narrative that is detailed enough to make you feel as though you are right there while providing you with historical and character background to a depth that makes it hard to believe he wasn't there as hostage, hostage-taker, everyday observer or politician. The timing of this book with regard to Iran's stalemate with the United States is uncanny. The mentions of the historical actions of the U.S. along with the cultural misunderstandings between the two countries is quite illuminating. And frightening.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

I had the opportunity to read this in ARC form nearly 2 months ago. Or has it been longer than that even? Anyhow, I was so excited about this book. But I couldn't say anything because it wasn't coming out for awhile yet and I'm feeling rather cruel if I post about a great book that someone might read about and forget before it is actually on the shelves. That's not fair to you, dear reader, or to the writer who gifts us with literary feasts. This is one of those books. If I recall correctly, Water for Elephants received more bookseller reviews and ratings at Booksense than any other in the history of their picks lists. It will be #1 on their list for June. I can't say I'm surprised since this gorgeous novel deserves the recognition.

So first off we meet our characters in the midst of something chaotic. It sucks you in instantly. You have to find out what is happening! But alas, we have to meet our main character (Jacob Jankowski) as he is now: old, cantankerous, frustrated with being old and more than a little sad. We love Jacob. We hate how miserable he is and wonder what sort of life he had that makes this new change so hard to cope with. This exploration into a stage in his life that changed him forever explains to us precisely why being caged like an animal is extra hard for him. Because for Jacob, that is exactly what he feels like: one of the caged animals he tried to help when he joined the circus. Accidentally, of course.

The flashes between past and present both progress forward in seamless, parallell lines. There is no awkwardness or sense of being lost in either time. Instead, we relate bit by bit as we move forward. And moving forward at a compelling pace! Once I started this book, there was nothing (except work) that could keep me from reading it. I anticipate reading it again soon now that I know what actually happens, I want to satisfy my hunger for the luscious details. The descriptions are never laborious or too poetic. Yet they are so utterly vivid that you can smell the manure and the sweat of the workers and the food tent; you can feel the heat and hear the squeaky wheels of the train as it slowly pulls away or the shouts of the sideshow callers. As a result of Gruen's intense and careful research, the reader is completely transplanted into the fading era of train circuses cris-crossing the country.

What I love most about this book is that you really get to know each character. Flaws and all. You have a slight feeling of compassion for even the seemingly cruelest characters (well, all but one really). Gruen's ability to portray basic humanity in all its complicated glories of love, jealousy, greed, cruelty and kindness is fabulous. She never over-reaches. It is a natural progression for everyone involved.

The gritty, sumptuous, magnificent writing gives us a deeply satisfying read. This one is truly an unforgettable book that you will want to go back to time and again.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Brushes with Writerly Glory

I apologize for being so lacksadasial in my updates. I have been reading non-stop, but an increase in work hours as well as a brief illness has subdued my regular additions here. The increase in work hours was due to accepting a new position at my bookstore. I now get to host and coordinate all in-store author events. In April we averaged 3 a week - many of which brought in several hundred people! So it's been busy.

Needless to say, there are great perks in this new position. Mainly in being able to cavort with writers as brief as their visits to us may be. As a sampling: It has been an honor to host writers such as Christopher Moore, Paul Rusesabagina, Jonathan Safran Foer and DBC Pierre.

Last night when DBC Pierre came in for his reading and we had a light crowd, we decided after to step on down to a local pub for a drink and some highly stimulating conversation. A brilliant, genuinely cool guy that DBC Pierre is. Oh, and his latest novel, Ludmila's Broken English is ridiculously well written.

Also! Not only was I blurbed by BookSense for Ariel Gore's marvelous first novel The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show, but Ms. Gore nabbed my post from this blog and posted it on hers. It's always good to know that your impressions of a book/writer are accurate enough for them to share with the world.

Coming up next week in my hostessing duties? Sebastian Junger and Augusten Burroughs. Then Mark Bowden and Sean Wilsey in early June. I love this job!!!